Therefore, I’ve started writing a due diligence document that we can use to help drive toward better user research results. Some of the goals we want to embrace include the following:
- To think not solely of our own role on a project, but how, over time, we can learn to achieve and sustain a holistic product perspective, both for ourselves and the teams we work with.
- To obtain better user research results that will let us improve the user experience.
- To conduct our business and user research in a way that gets our product teams to trust and respect user research.
- To potentially get results that open, create, and confirm opportunities for improvement or innovation.
This article describes a funnel that starts with the product, progresses to the users, and finally, plumbs the depths of the user research itself. I’ll attempt to show how each of these stages can inform the next stage and move us toward finding the gold.
Stage 1: The Product
When devising a research plan, what is your research goal? Much of the answer depends on exactly what you want to discover—and some of this comes back to your perspective and what you think your job is. Two goals we all share are to improve the product and understand how the product fits into an overall product strategy. This means we need to ask the right questions up front—even before we start to think about what we want to discover from users through our research.
We need to frame the questions in both the language of the business and language of the product. This is important, because doing this puts us on the same footing and lets us use the same language as the people who are funding, leading, marketing, and otherwise driving the product forward. Thus, our first goal is to find out more about the product and the process of the product team with which we are working. Some questions we might ask include the following:
- What are the business goals?
- What does the product do?
- Is this a new product or does it replace an existing product?
- What are the product goals?
- What are the critical tasks or key user journeys for the product?
- What will make or break the product in terms of market success?
- What is the timing for product delivery?
- What are you looking to achieve in this version of the product?
- What does the product do well?
- What aspects of the product give users the most pain right now?
- Where do you think the product needs improvement?
- What are the internal and external product competitors? Does the product have competitors inside the company or just outside the company?
- How does the product fit within an overall set of products or broader product strategy? Is there a product strategy?
- Who makes up the product team? How many people are on the team?
- If it’s an existing product, what makes the product successful?
- What are the standout features of the product? What makes it easy for salespeople to sell it?
- What data is available that can tell you more about the product—for example, analytics, sales, or customer call center data?
- Are there any marketing materials available? How does the company present the product on the Web, through brochures, and in retail stores, if relevant.
- Can you take the product home with you and try it out or play with a demo?
Can You Get All the Answers?
You may be surprised to learn that the product team does not have all the answers to your questions. Usually, there are only pieces of a product strategy in place. So, asking these questions provides a good opportunity to revisit current product thinking and get everyone on the same page.
You’ve probably noticed, in reading these questions, that we have not yet spoken about users or used terms like usability, interaction design, information architecture, user experience, customer experience, or other UX jargon. This is deliberate. We want to give the people we’re speaking with an opportunity to stand outside their own silos, think about the product from a strategic perspective, and understand what the whole team must do to achieve its strategic goals—the effort it will take on the part of all the disciplines to deliver a great product experience.
You may also have noticed that we’ve asked no hardcore technology questions at this stage. Of course, technology is important, because it usually underpins the products we’re designing. However, you want to be careful not to get trapped in the rabbit warren of discussing technology opportunities and constraints. Often, the starter questions I’ve outlined will reveal answers about the technology anyway and also give you a hint about whether the engineering team is onboard to help you realize the product changes that are necessary to achieving a great user experience.
Have You Done Your Homework?
Before entering Stage 1, it is important to do your homework. For example, prior to meeting with your product team, for a product that’s already in the marketplace, have you looked at the product? Have you taken the time to visit a store that carries it or to watch someone using it? Have you given yourself an understanding of the necessary consumer context to take into your product discovery?
Establishing a Common Language
The list of questions I outlined earlier is by no means exhaustive, but these questions start a conversation with your product team that is based on a common language—the language of what it will take to make the product successful. As you plan your user research, they also provide you with a product history, so when you run the research, you can put on a Product Manager hat and think about how to improve the product from that point of view. Doing this shows your research is not just about finding usability issues, solving design issues, or finishing your research on time. Instead, you are helping guide your product team toward a vision. You can think about the product in holistic terms, through the eyes of your various team members’ professional disciplines and roles, and in a way that helps everyone have the product’s success and customers’ best interests at heart.